Cheap n' Easy Shadowbox Style 3D Background

Discussion in 'Freshwater Aquarium Builds' started by cooperbh, Jul 18, 2015.

  1. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Disclaimer: Still a work in progress, as I will soon be replacing my current ML filter, featuring the ugly black intake that used to perfectly match my old black background but now conspicuously occupies the middle of the tank, with a slimmer AC filter whose intake is discreet and clear and on the far left side, largely negating the need to obscure the eyesore intake, as well as the need to light from underneath the filter. I will also be removing the heater from its glass suction cups and hiding it on the substrate, just as soon as I get around to clearing out a space for it behind the ludwigia.

    So, speaking of the good ol' black background, I was, until very recently, one of the many fish keepers who believed it was our only option for creating depth and making colors pop - or at least the only one that didn't require the use of a foam cutter and a hot glue gun. And, honestly, I was never really big on the whole rock wall thing anyway, as both it and the black background essentially do the same thing: They bring the background forward. Which to my mind is totally counterintuitive to what a background should do, right? What I wanted was a background that truly connected with the foreground and created the illusion that the space really extended beyond the dimensions of the tank.

    With that in mind, my starting point was those professional aquascapes I love so much, with the frosted glass backgrounds and usually dramatic colored lighting that often comes from underneath, rather than from above. I asked myself: What if that lighting were more natural and applied more realistically? Then I found online some marine tanks with bulky wooden shadowbox backgrounds, replete with large, heavy rock work and expensive lighting systems. What if that basic effect could be achieved for a freshwater environment, with materials that were not so large, heavy and expensive?

    OK, so enough talk. After much experimentation, here's what I've come up with so far. Keep in mind the smart phone camera I am currently forced to use doesn't nearly capture and reproduce color or depth of field with any reasonable degree of accuracy.



    After rescape and lighting upgrade

    And here's how I did it, step by step.

    1) Apply frosted window film (available at Home Depot/Lowes for around $20) to cut-to-size clear acrylic sheet (another $20 for 50 gallon tanks and under, plus $6 cost of acrylic cutting tool) and place behind tank, frosted side forward (very important, as imperfections in application from reverse side are much more visible once back lit.) Film could also be applied directly to back outside wall of tank, but I personally wanted the option of removing it if I didn't like it or wanted a change down the road.

    2) Using black construction paper, cut out terrain shape(s) and duck tape to back of acrylic sheet (or to the back wall of tank itself, if window film was applied directly.)

    3) Light the area behind the tank. I used three remote controlled LED puck lights with color and brightness adjustment, which were priced around $35 at HD. I imagine the $130 LED strip lighting system I had my eye on would have produced even better results, but then I wouldn't have been able to use the word "cheap" in my thread topic. I simply taped the puck lights to the tank's top cover at the point where the chord joins with the light itself and allowed them to rest there horizontally as close to the edge as they could go without falling, lighting the wall behind the tank. The third puck light was fastened to a sliver of firewood and placed under the HOB filter to better light that area.

    Now, you could conceivably stop right there and already have a far more compelling background than any black painted glass or cheesy Petco stock scene with the endless wall of plastic plants. But if you're feeling adventurous, keep reading.

    4) The fun part. Gather branches/sticks/leaves/bark from the yard, along with some fake plants from PetSmart (definitely the best selection of cheap fake plants in my particular neck of the woods.) No need to worry about things like sap or tannins or pesticides for once, just grab off the ground or from above what looks best to your eyes. Than grab some more. And some more. You'll be surprised how that one piece you almost left behind is the one piece you needed to complete the effect once everything else is laid in.

    5) The not-so-fun part. Warning: You will quickly find that the smallest knob on the smallest twig from the smallest branch will somehow latch onto and move an entire fire log sliver you're using for a base, upsetting everything sitting on top of it in the process. You will also find that branches have more latching twigs than you can visually account for. With all that in mind, carefully place the decor you've gathered between the black construction paper and the acrylic sheet. I wish I could tell you there was a method to the madness, but there simply isn't. You just have to experiment with different combinations until you find the look that works best for your particular tank design and the fit that just, well - fits.

    6) (Optional) Obsess over ways you can make your awesome background even better. I'm still diligently working on this step, so you'll have to make sure and check back later to see what comes of it.

    That's it, I guess. Not too shabby for around $70, I'd say. Can't wait to read your feedback. By all means, don't hold back any criticism you may have, as it will only help improve the final product. I've been looking at this thing far too close for far too long, TBH. I could use the fresh eyes and the honest perspective they bring.

    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 23, 2018
  2. ButterflyModeratorModerator Member

    Welcome to FishLore!

    Love the tank. Sometimes the background can be the little something that makes the tank zing.


  3. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Absolutely. Thanks for the welcome and compliment, BTW.

    Got the new filter installed. Now waiting for my order of val nana to arrive so I can fill the suddenly gaping hole between the filter and large driftwood piece.

    Speaking of val nana, I had to return the festivums before they completely mowed down what plants were already there in that area (as well as my entire shrimp population.) Luckily, I had already ordered some black phantoms from my LFS that had come in a few days before I returned the festivums. Hopefully, this group will survive, unlike the last who all succumbed to some sort of mystery illness.

    At some point in this hobby you get to actually just sit and watch fish, right?

    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 23, 2018
  4. ButterflyModeratorModerator Member

    All the hard work is worth it. The day will come when You can relax and just watch your tank.


  5. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    In all honesty, 90% of the constant workload is on me and my perfectionist tendencies. The other 10% is due to me continually falling for so-called "peaceful" cichlids, lol. Three rams and two festivums later, I've still yet to come across one of those.
  6. alirayFishlore VIPMember

    Looks really nice and what a good idea. Alison
  7. thefishdude277Well Known MemberMember

    Wait, you have festivum cichlids?!?!?!
    Finally a member that has them!!!
    As you can tell, I love festivums haha :D

  8. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Had them for three or four days. They were fantastic at first, but then they became, well... cichlids. Tore up my plants, killed all my shrimp and the larger one began continually bullying the smaller. Neither one ever went after my other fish (that I witnessed), but, nonetheless, the rest of the community constantly hid away in the back of the tank, not even coming out for feedings.

    But, all that aside, I loved everything else about them. So much so, I still have them in my avatar. Just can't seem to let go. :'(
  9. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Thanks on both counts! Hope others give it a try and find ways to improve upon the idea.
  10. Theman1Valued MemberMember

    We all know this never happens haha.
  11. GvilleguyValued MemberMember

    Thanks for sharing this. It's a good look. Would you be able to post some behind-the-scenes photos of the backdrop to give me a better idea how you have things organized?
  12. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Sure thing. I thought of doing a photo journal originally, but I wasn't sure this thing was even gonna work until I was finished with it.

    Hope that helps. It's basically a house of cards back there. Definitely the most time consuming and oftentimes most frustrating step in the process. Wish I could give you some pointers, but it was really just so much trial and error for me. Start wedging things in and see where they fit. Lather, rinse, repeat.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 23, 2018
  13. GvilleguyValued MemberMember

    That's a big help seeing it - thanks for posting!
  14. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    No problem. Be sure to post some pics if you get it working.
  15. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Got a bit of a "cool story, bro" before my latest update...

    So, I was buying cat food at Petco yesterday when I saw a bunch of LED tank lights on the closeout shelf by the checkout. There was one in particular among the Fluvals and Marinelands that was for freshwater and also fit my tank - a Current Satellite LED +. Just to give you an idea of how much these things were all going for...

    Pretty much a no-brainer, huh? For those familiar with this light, feel free to leave your quick impressions.

    Anyway, now that I have a new tank light, it has freed up the LED accent light I was using under my hood with a fluorescent plant bulb. So, I decided to try that light to backlight my background. Everything both foreground and background is definitely more vivid now. I also did a little work on hiding my HOB filter. What do you guys think?

    I feel a rescape coming soon, as I've been having algae problems since those festivums ripped up a bunch of my plants. Most have recovered, but the algae that moved in while they were in tatters is only getting worse, and the two amanos the festivums didn't kill won't touch it now for some reason. So, I need to scrub some rocks and wood, plus I've wanted to change my substrate to sand for a while now. Speaking of wood, I also want to trim down that gigantic driftwood piece now that it's not needed to hide a filter intake.

    Stay tuned.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 23, 2018
  16. Et tuValued MemberMember

    Wow! That is stunning.
  17. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Much thanks. It's getting there, I do believe.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2015
  18. GvilleguyValued MemberMember

    I think the lighting change made a huge difference! Very nice.
  19. cooperbhValued MemberMember

    Thanks, I agree about the lighting. Speaking of which, I picked up yet another light in the Petco bargain bin recently (a Fluval Aqualife & Plant LED, regularly $180, purchased for $45.), and I like it even more than the other one. Can't believe how vivid and colorful everything is now. So, I removed the canopy on my tank and am rocking both lights presently, using the Current Satellite LED + as an accent light to fine tune the color.

    I'm doing a rescape over the weekend, BTW. Will be changing over to sand and doing a long overdue cleaning of rocks, plants and driftwood. Would like to better integrate the hardscape with the new background as well. Will post pics when finished.
  20. cooperbhValued MemberMember


    Rescape is finished, for the most part. Still need to tweak some things here and there, but all the heavy lifting is finally done. What do you guys think?


    I really want to remove the plastic ludwigia behind the real ludwigia, but I'm afraid that whole house of cards behind the tank will come tumbling down. Maybe I'll wait for the ludwigia to grow taller (Which won't be a very long wait, I bet. That stuff grows like weeds.) and see if it doesn't help it blend in better.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 23, 2018

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